His name was Don.
He was son, sibling, husband, father, grandfather and friend to many, including me.
He was a citizen and a U.S. Army veteran.
He’s dead now, the result of the ineptitude and overriding bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA didn’t give him the disease – cancer – that killed him.
But the VA and its regulations made it possible for him to die sooner than he might have, had he gotten timely treatment.
The VA made it possible for him to suffer many days and weeks of incredible pain before his death.
The VA also created the circumstances for his wife to deal with the stupidity of the system in arranging for her husband to get the appointments and treatments she was told were critical.
The cold bureaucracy of the VA system created the situation where her husband spent the last weeks of his life in a special “hospice ward” of the VA in which the patient got virtually no personal care.
In fact, had his wife not been there to clothe, bathe and often feed him, it wouldn’t have been done.
For all intents and purposes, VA rules deemed it was his time to die – regardless.
And he did, as his wife, enduring her own grief, remained at his side and heard his last words.
As she held his hand, he cried, “My arm hurts so much. Oh, my heart hurts. Oh, honey, my heart hurts so bad!”
And then, she told me, his eyes opened wide in pain and fear, then his eyes rolled back and he died, as she watched in horror.
We’ve been inundated with the details of the ineptitude of the VA and the estimates of the perhaps thousands of veterans who died because of treatment delays and who endured great suffering.
It’s a scandalous disaster that’s been simmering for years, and it finally made the headlines because of a courageous whistleblower.
There are whoops of horror and demands for investigations and for heads to roll. But for the most part, mostly nothing will happen once the first outrage passes because not enough people really care.
The attitude is, they’re just a bunch of old guys; they’re close to the end of their lives anyway, so let it happen.
The families dealing with the frustrations of trying to make sense of a system that’s filled with nonsense regulations are left physically and emotionally exhausted. Then, when their loved one dies, there’s no strength left to continue the fight.
Just have the funeral and cry – exactly what the system wants.
Don was regular Army, joining at 18, serving in Germany along “the wall” – the border.
Two years later, there was an accident on base, and he suffered a ruptured spleen requiring lengthy hospitalization.
Years later, at home, he tried to get his medical records and discovered that during Vietnam War protests, many VA medical records were burned, his included.
There was no way to find out anything more than his name and that he’d served – but no treatment or physician records.
Later, in his 60s, he suffered another spleen problem, and that’s when the ordeal began, complicated by pneumonia.
The emergency-room doctor in the small Arizona town where Don lived thought he was dying. The doctor said he was concerned about three spots on one of his lungs, and Don needed an immediate biopsy.
He also gave Don and his wife a copy of a disc with the pictures showing the worrisome lung spots.
It was a weekend, the VA in Tucson was a 2-hour drive and Don’s wife told me you avoid the VA on weekends because only emergency-room help is there.
Several days later, by phone, the VA told Don he needed to see a primary care doctor first, in another town, a 45-minute drive from home, but the VA had to make that appointment for him. Then, the primary care doctor would call the VA to make the appointment with a lung specialist there.
They promised to call Don.
Weeks, then months went by before he finally got an appointment with the primary doctor only to find out that the disc with the pictures of the lung spots had gotten lost!
Then it took from March to October, before he was able to see a specialist for that “urgent” biopsy, and yes, it was cancer.
That was Oct. 1. Outpatient chemo would start the end of the month. It was over by early December, at which time Don had to go into the hospital in Tucson for radiation. That was the last time I saw him.
There they discovered one of the spots had grown, but it was the holiday season and staff was on vacation.
So treatment was delayed until the end of January with the last radiation shot the end of February, and Don went home.
But he suffered worsening pain, and the VA said to bring him in.
His wife did, but Don was left on a bed in the hallway from early afternoon till after midnight, before being moved to a room – but still no doctors.
In the morning, four doctors came in and announced that the last shot of radiation burst one of the tumors, so the cancer was throughout his body. All that was left now was hospice.
Don went home again, but when pain got too bad, the VA said bring him back – only for them to be left in a hallway again, waiting for a doctor for more than four hours.
The government says the VA is there to take care of our vets.
That sounds good if you don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy.
Those who do, know better.
Remember Don’s experience, a little over a year ago.
His widow is convinced the VA killed her husband.
He’s one of many.
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